Analysis: U.S.-Syrian thaw sours over Lebanon tribunal

By Dominic Evans

DAMASCUS (BestGrowthStock) – Tension over a U.N.-backed investigation in Lebanon over the killing of former prime minister Rafik al-Hariri has soured a tentative rapprochement between the United States and Syria.

The two countries exchanged tough rhetoric over the last two weeks, with President Bashar al-Assad accusing the United States of spreading chaos in the world and U.S. officials accusing Syria of trying to undermine stability in Lebanon.

The war of words underlined how little progress President Barack Obama’s engagement policy with Damascus has yielded.

The bitter words are unlikely to derail the relationship completely because both countries need each other to advance their strategic goals.

But neither Syria, which seeks U.S. pressure on Israel to end its four-decade occupation of the Golan Heights, and Washington, which wants Damascus to curb its ties with Iran and Islamist groups, feels the other has delivered tangible results.

“Both sides have been sitting on the fence. Syria is disappointed with the Obama administration,” one Western diplomat in Damascus said of Obama’s efforts to engage with Syria since he took office in January last year.

The United States named a new ambassador, Robert Ford, to Damascus in February, nearly five years after withdrawing its envoy following the assassination in Beirut of Lebanese statesman Rafik al-Hariri — a killing which Syria’s foes in Lebanon blamed on Damascus. Syria has denied any involvement.

But Congress has yet to approve Ford’s appointment, and Syria has shown no sign of addressing U.S. hopes it will cut support for Lebanon’s armed Shi’ite group Hezbollah and the Palestinian Islamist Hamas, or distance itself from Iran.

“Syria and the United States have been keeping the engagement process on life support; that’s all that’s been happening for the last year,” said Peter Harling of the International Crisis Group.

U.S. Senator John Kerry, speaking in Beirut on Monday, expressed regret that domestic “partisan politics” were holding up Ford’s assignment. But he said progress on that front would also depend on Syrian behavior.

“So we will look to Syria to play a constructive role in these next days in what happens here in Lebanon,” he said.

“SOWING CHAOS”

Assad told the pan-Arab newspaper al-Hayat in an interview published last month that the United States had “created chaos in every place it entered,” pointing to interventions in Afghanistan, Somalia and Lebanon.

A Western diplomat in Damascus said the barbed comments surprised U.S. officials after what he described as a positive reception in Syria for U.S. Middle East envoy George Mitchell, who is trying to revive Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

Two days after Assad’s remarks, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, accused Damascus of displaying “flagrant disregard for the sovereignty, territorial integrity, unity and political independence of Lebanon.”

Western diplomats say the outburst reflects growing U.S. concern that Syria, which still wields influence in Lebanon five years after it withdrew its troops, has stepped up efforts to obstruct the U.N.-backed investigation into Hariri’s killing.

A Syrian judge last month issued arrest warrants for 33 people, including several Lebanese supporters of Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, son of the slain statesman, for alleged false testimony given to the investigation.

Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem criticized the international court and Prime Minister Naji al-Otari compared Hariri’s March 14 alliance — named after a huge anti-Syrian protest following the 2005 assassination — to a house of cards.

“The Syrians crossed red lines for the United States when they issued the warrants and in the way they talked about the tribunal,” the Western diplomat said.

Lebanon’s Shi’ite Hezbollah movement, backed by Syria and Iran, is also trying to block the tribunal, calling on Lebanese to halt cooperation with it after it emerged that members of the group may be indicted for the 2005 attack.

The United States also says Syria continues to supply Hezbollah, which fought an inconclusive 34-day war with Israel in 2006, with weapons.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates said in April that Syria, alongside Iran, was providing Hezbollah with military equipment of “ever increasing capability.” Syria says it lends Hezbollah only political support.

Another source of friction has been U.S. calls on Syria to open up to U.N. inspectors probing what Washington says was a covert Syrian nuclear reactor being built to make fuel for atom bombs, before the site was bombed to ruins by Israel in 2007.

Syria has denied having any nuclear weapons designs but has barred access to U.N. nuclear watchdog investigators since a brief inspector trip to the site in 2008, where traces of uranium were found, raising concerns.

Syrian journalist Thabet Salem said Syria believed that, despite Obama’s efforts to improve ties, the United States seeks to use the Lebanon tribunal to pressure Damascus.

“They know Syria has nothing to do with the assassination of Hariri,” he said. “Nevertheless they would like to keep a sword on the neck of Hezbollah (because) this implies Syria has something to do with it.”

“The Syrians know very well that the U.S. is a big player… and they don’t favor any conflict with the United States. But they won’t accept this policy.”

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman told the Washington Post last week that the two countries had taken “modest steps” to improve their relationship. But he said the process would not go far “as long as Syria’s friends are undermining stability in Lebanon.”

And U.S. pursuit of a regional Arab-Israeli peace accord, of which Syria would be a key part, “doesn’t mean that we are going to start trading our other interests in Iraq or Lebanon in order to get Damascus to like us better.”

(Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Analysis: U.S.-Syrian thaw sours over Lebanon tribunal